The uproar over the British tax agency's loss of computer disks with personal and financial information on about 25 million Britons has rocked the five-month-old government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, raising new questions about its competence and ability to withstand the challenge of a resurgent Conservative Party.
Opinion polls taken after the government on Wednesday announced the loss of the computer data suggested slumping support for Brown and the government.
A poll conducted online for Channel 4 television showed the Conservatives leading his Labor Party by a substantial margin, and another online poll, for the Times of London, showed that confidence in Brown's competence as prime minister had fallen.
With Brown not obliged to call a general election until 2010, commentators have been cautious about just how much trouble Brown is in. Labor is in its 11th year in office, led for 10 of them by the man Brown succeeded as prime minister this summer, Tony Blair, whose charismatic but controversial leadership was undercut by public disenchantment over the Iraq war and his close relationship with US President George W. Bush.
Brown's case was not helped by England's loss in a major soccer match at midweek that meant that England, home of the modern form of the game, had failed to qualify for next summer's European championship.
Many Laborites have looked for political regeneration under Brown. His supporters acknowledged he was duller and less politically agile than Blair, but with a sober competence that he had demonstrated as finance minister in the Blair government.
It helped that early on as prime minister, Brown announced plans to halve Britain's troop strength in Iraq to 2,500 troops, by next spring.
But there have been a succession of headline-grabbing missteps. Among these, many in the Labor Party now say, was Brown's decision in October to call off months of behind-the-scenes planning for a fall election when polls showed he had a strong prospect of winning a parliamentary majority.
The computer disks' disappearance has been the biggest blow. On Wednesday, the Conservatives' leader, David Cameron, seemed to unsettle Brown, who had said the missing disks were the result of an error by a junior official, not of government policy.
Cameron asked Brown in parliament: "Do you know what people want from the prime minister in days like this? It is for him to stand up, show some broad shoulders, be a big man and take some responsibility."
The unencrypted disks, carrying bank account details and addresses for 7.5 million families claiming monthly child benefits, were lost after the tax agency's headquarters dispatched them by unregistered mail courier to an audit office. A 10-day police search has failed to find the disks.
Along with Brown's apology in parliament for the "inconvenience and worries caused to millions of people" and the resignation of the tax agency's top official, the government has said there is no sign the disks have fallen into criminal hands. Still, it has offered no explanation about what happened.
Nor has it rebutted Conservative claims, based on leaked government e-mail messages, that a senior tax agency official knew of the plan to send the disks by mail.
Brown's standing has been further battered by the gloomy outlook for the Northern Rock bank, a lender that has seen the first run on any British bank since the 1830s and avoided collapse by the injection of more than US$47 billion in government loans.