1997: In the COI report published three months after the election victory that saw Tony Blair oust John Major as Prime Minister, it is revealed that COI adspend on behalf of government departments was £69.4 million for the 1996-97 reporting period.
1999: But Blair soon runs into controversy when the COI spend almost doubles year on year to £105 million for the 1998-99 period. The Tories accuse the Government of politicising the public information process. They claim Blair has used COI to evangelise on behalf of his pet social projects, such as the New Deal and Working Families Tax Credit. Calls from the Shadow Home Secretary, Anne Widdecombe, for an inquiry fall on deaf ears.
2001: But the soaraway spending increases keep coming. In the 2000-01 COI report, not even a new accounting wheeze (stripping out production costs from the total advertising figure to derive a lower media spend figure) can disguise the fact that COI has now become the UK's second-largest advertiser (behind Unilever) with an adspend figure of £162 million. Her Majesty's Opposition calls for an inquiry.
2004: Mysteriously, spending appeared briefly to have been reined in following the General Election of 2001. But it began climbing again, hitting a new advertising media spending peak of £167.6 million in 2003-04. The Tories accuse the Government of beginning to lay the groundwork for a possible General Election in 2005 and call for a National Audit Office inquiry. Spookily, 2005 does indeed turn out to be an election year.
2008: In 2006-07, COI adspend had fallen to its second-lowest level this decade (£135.9 million). However, the figures for 2007-08 show a by-now-familiar surge to £156.9 million, a year-on-year increase of just over 15 per cent. Despite the fact that there are no immediate calls for a public inquiry, the Government feels obliged to point out that a previous Tory Government actually spent more in 1986-87 (adjusting to account for inflation).
Fast forward ...
2011: Her Majesty's Opposition calls for a public inquiry when it is revealed that COI adspend for 2010-11 has surged past the £250 million mark. The Shadow Home Secretary, Ed Balls, accuses Prime Minister David Cameron of using public money to evangelise on behalf of his new programme of social reform. And there is laughter in the House of Commons when Balls accuses the Government of hypocrisy.