( AFP ) - The government was left reeling Wednesday by the spectacular blunder that got nearly half the population's confidential records inexplicably lost in the post.
Commentators wondered whether it could get any worse for the embattled Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, whose reputation for quiet competence was crumbling away.
The Chancellor was already on the ropes on Monday thanks to the crisis surrounding the government bail-out of battered mortgage lender Northern Rock.
He then told a stunned parliament on Tuesday that a copy of the private records of the 25 million people who receive child benefit payments had vanished.
Darling said two data discs containing records for 7.25 million families, including names, addresses, dates of birth and bank account details were missing due to a "huge, massive, unforgivable mistake".
The calamitous blunder was committed by a junior official at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) who astonishingly did not even bother sending them by registered post.
Newspapers were simply staggered.
"The eye-popping scale of this government's latest fiasco beggars belief," The Sun said in its editorial.
"This government has stumbled from one bushfire to another."
The Guardian's front page story began: "The government was forced to admit the most fundamental breach of faith between the state and the citizen."
While Darling was first in line for the flak, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was not far behind. He vacated the finance ministry in June to take over the top job from Tony Blair.
"Six weeks ago, as he called off an autumn election, Gordon Brown explained that while his administration had shown 'competence', he wanted time to set out its 'vision'," The Daily Telegraph said in its editorial.
"Yesterday... the prime minister must have cursed his timidity" as he watched Darling flounder.
Newspapers said George Osborne, the Conservative Party's finance spokesman, summed it up by telling Darling: "Never mind the vision: just get a grip and deliver a basic level of competence."
The two password-protected discs were sent in a package to the National Audit Office public spending watchdog in breach of procedures in October.
Banks and building societies are on alert for any suspicious activity on accounts and child benefit claimants have been warned likewise to keep a look-out. Scotland Yard are also on the case.
So far, there is no evidence that the data has fallen into the wrong hands, Darling said.
HMRC chairman Paul Gray, who only took up the role eight months ago after his predecessor quit over multi-million-pound fraud and error in the tax credits system, resigned Tuesday.
It has been a tumultuous week for Darling.
On Monday he was forced to defended the government's handling of the Northern Rock crisis, which saw the first run on a British bank in over a century, fueled by turmoil in the US subprime mortgage sector.
But Northern Rock shares again plunged to an all-time low Tuesday as investors feared for the future of the troubled lender.