Shortly before Christmas I heard from a forceful woman lobbyist of my acquaintance for the first times in ages. She was outraged that Customs & Excise had quietly slipped VAT back on categories of incontinence products which had escaped from the taxman's grip via a court ruling under the wicked Tories.
Now it must be said that it is the job of Customs & Excise (which manages such taxes under Treasury direction) to close VAT loopholes. Like closing those offshore tax dodges or painting the Forth Bridge opposite Gordon Brown's Dunfermline East constituency, it is a full-time job.
The trouble is that incontinence pads, mainly used by the old or infirm, are an emotive issue. In Opposition, Labour had included the VAT imposition as one of shadow chancellor Brown's '22 Tory tax hikes'. 'Oh no, he didn't,' replied the now-chancellor's spin paramedic when I raised the point. 'Oh yes, he did,' I replied with more than usual confidence because my lobbyist friend had faxed me the Labour press release.
Paul Burstow, Lib Dem newboy from Sutton and Cheam, was quickly on to it, asking whether extra cash would be provided to help the NHS pay the extra VAT bill. The NHS had 'always been liable to VAT, and funding allocations take account of this,' explained Alan Milburn, though he did reveal that Customs had warned ministers it was planning to overturn the court ruling as early as 13 August.
In truth it didn't make many waves in Fleet Street, which is still in the late William-and-Ffion stage of its honeymoon with New Labour and where few journalists wear incontinence pads, unless you count the Mirror editor's nappies.
I mention it to make two points. One is that the honeymoon is indeed ending, as Robin Cook, Jack Straw etc can confirm. The second is that, yes, Labour is in the process of gradually squeezing us all, especially the relatively affluent middle class who do not enjoy the Channel Islands trust open to some we could mention. Not by raising income tax - it promised not to do that - but by raising other tax.
We are beginning to get clearer glimpses of it in all sorts of ways. University tuition fees on students in families earning pounds18-20,000, a shift handled much more skilfully by D Blunkett, incidentally, than H Harman tackling lone mums; in our own field, speculation that everyone will have to pay for their contraceptives; and that more affluent pensioners (ie those with decent pensions) may have to pay for their scrips - even costly and regular ones, which seems a bit hard.
I stress 'may'. Much of this is kite-flying to test how the tabloids, pressure groups and lobbyists react, though Brother Milburn has already used the Christmas news vacuum to obtain generous publicity for the latest crackdown on prescription fraud, allegedly worth pounds100m a year.
As I write, Tony Blair is struggling to relaunch the public debate on welfare reform for the umpteenth time with his 'welfare roadshow'. Ministers blame the media and Labour MPs for whipping up scare stories. There is some truth in that, but the government itself remains unclear as to how it intends to create a leaner but fairer system. Consequently the medicine administered by its spin doctors adds to public confusion.
What it wants to do is to target scarce resources where they are most needed - to the really poor - and to release extra funds for the two Blairite priority areas: health and education. Fine, if it works. Meanwhile, all credit to Ms Harman for coming up with a new presentation wheeze.
Instead of the emotive term 'means testing' which reminds too many people of the bad old Poor Law days, she is floating an 'affluence test', the sort of test which might deprive 40 per cent of taxpayers of their child benefit, incapacity benefit or state pensions and free scrips.
'Affluence' sounds like a spin doctor's con word. But I much prefer it to 'rich', which is misleading because it makes us think they're talking about taxing someone else. The Treasury's Geoffrey Robinson, for example, now he's rich. Unfortunately, there aren't enough Geoffreys to make much difference. If Labour wants real money it's going to have to tax us.