It is almost too extraordinary to be a genuine news story. The revelation that HM Revenue and Customs has managed to 'lose' 2 computer discs containing the personal and financial details of all 25 million people in the UK in receipt of child benefit sounds as if it might have been dreamt up by those who, for their day job, write the 'Spooks' scripts. Alas, no. This monumental cock-up has actually happened. And the man ultimately in charge of HM Revenue, Chancellor of the Exchequer Alastair Darling, was forced to make a full confession before an incredulous House of Commons today.
Not that it's Mr. Darling's fault. He has inherited a Treasury department whose systems appear to be woefully inadequate, so perhaps it is his predecessor - Mr. G. Brown, now working elsewhere - who is to blame? Vince Cable made the telling point in the Commons today when he suggested that it was now the Treasury which was the government department that is 'not fit for purpose'.
Even without the disastrous news about the missing 25 million people's details, Mr. Darling was not due to have a quiet day, since he is still trying to firefight the Northern Rock fiasco. I don't know about shares in Northern Rock, but I'll wager no-one will be buying shares in Alastair Darling for a long time.
And what are the ramifications of this extraordinary piece of incompetence? Well, the government's patent inability to secure delicate personal details on millions of its citizens must surely be posing the bigger question of why on earth we should trust it with the far more monumental project of ID cards? This, after all, is a government initiative that has already spun out of financial control, and today's news hardly encourages us to believe in basic government competence. But there is also the intriguing question of whether this latest knock to the image of the Brown government might not be seen as Gordon Brown's very own Black Wednesday. It was the irreparable damage caused to the Conservatives' once sound reputation for economic competence caused by the ERM fiasco that lead ultimately to John Major's drubbing at the polls in 1997. Could Brown now be facing a similar path?