Sir Keir Starmer has been warned against surrendering the Elgin Marbles to Greece amid reports in Greek media he could be “favourable” to doing that as Prime Minister.
The 2,500-year-old artefacts have been at the heart of one of the world’s longest-running and bitterest cultural disputes, stemming from Lord Elgin selling the works to the British Government in 1816.
They have ever since been housed in the British Museum, which is prevented under law from handing over the works by legislation which the Government has consistently refused to change.
The Labour leader is said to be privately open to “finding a legal formula that will allow for the eventual return of the Marbles” to hand over the Elgin Marbles, according to the leading Greek newspaper Ta Nea.
However, the publication suggested that Sir Keir will not raise it publicly for fear of upsetting Conservative voters at the next election.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is set to meet Sir Keir when he visits London at the end of this month, has argued openly that the works were stolen.
Conservative MP Tim Loughton told Express.co.uk: “It is deeply worrying that Keir Starmer is considering treating cultural treasures such as the Elgin Marbles as political trading opportunities to curry favour with other nations.”
The former minister said: “This would be the worst possible reason for sending the marbles to Greece and would completely undermine the ability of world museums such as the British Museum to showcase the history of man’s cultural achievements to the wider world.
“The Elgin Marbles were acquired lawfully by the British Museum as determined in lengthy scrutiny by parliament over 200 years ago and as such are seen by millions of people for free from around the world in the context of an exhaustive array of other cultural treasures from many other cultures.”
He added: “It would be a highly retrograde step if a future Labour government was to turn the Elgin Marbles into political pawns. What else would we need to give away to promote diplomatic relations? Gibraltar, the Rosetta Stone?”
David Campbell Bannerman, chair of the Conservative Democratic Organisation said Sir Keir risked making an “empty token gesture which should be firmly resisted”.
“If there is any case for returning the Elgin Marbles, it would be to resell them to the Turks who sold them to Elgin,” he added.
The Scottish aristocrat secured the treasures from the Ottoman government, which controlled Greece at the time.
The furore over Sir Keir’s potential handling of the dispute comes as the chairman of the British Museum, George Osborne, said this week that he hoped to “reach an agreement” with Greece to see the Elgin Marbles temporary returned in exchange for other artefacts for display in the UK never seen before.
“We may well not succeed, but we think it’s worth trying,” the former Chancellor said in a speech.
However, experts have previously warned that the Greeks could repossess the Elgin Marbles once loaned in an act of “judicial seizure”.
Earlier this year, Rishi Sunak made clear he would not change the Government’s longstanding refusal to allow the Museum to hand over the Elgin Marbles.
The Prime Minister told reporters: “The UK has cared for the Elgin Marbles for generations.
“Our galleries and museums are funded by taxpayers because they are a huge asset to this country. We share their treasures with the world, and the world comes to the UK to see them. The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it.”
Labour officials told the Times that they have “no current plans” to change the law.
“The next Labour government will hear the case from the British Museum and its chair on any proposed changes to the National Heritage Act 1983 as it stands. We’ve no current plans to change it,” a spokesperson said.