"Who is Mike Gapes?" a colleague asked me this week after I quoted him as joining the fast-lengthening queue of Tony Blair's Labour critics. "Mike Gapes is very important," I replied. "When people like him start to criticise Blair, he's in trouble." By complete coincidence, the next day a Blair aide told me unprompted over lunch: "In the current climate, the views of Mike Gapes suddenly take on enormous significance."
Mr Gapes, who was a Labour official before becoming an MP in 1992, is an archetypal loyalist. As chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he told the BBC Mr Blair's successor would probably pursue a very similar foreign policy but would abandon his "hug-them-close" strategy under which he never criticises George Bush in public.
As it happens, Mr Gapes did not call for Mr Blair to set a date for his departure - even though, in the febrile atmosphere at Westminster, that is how some parts of the media reported his remarks.
But Mr Gapes was among a group of MPs invited to Chequers on Thursday to discuss Mr Blair's plans to kick-start the Middle East peace process - after which the Prime Minister gave him a whistlestop tour of his country pile.
On the same day, he also invited The Times to Chequers. It was he who asked for the interview, not the other way round. His intention was to call for a wide-ranging debate on Labour's policy. But inevitably, the newspaper was more interested in the growing demands by Labour MPs for him to spell out his exit strategy. Downing Street issued a transcript yesterday of the interview so that Mr Blair's thoughts on the need for policy renewal could get more of an airing. Blairite ministers and ex-ministers will step up the demand next week.
This is more of a source of friction with Gordon Brown than the date in 2007 that Mr Blair decides to ring in his diary. It is no accident that yesterday's criticism of Mr Blair's refusal to name a day now was led by leading Brownites. But what most irks the Brown camp is not whether Mr Blair leaves Number 10 next July or September. It is his apparent attempt to tie the hands of his most likely successor.
New Labour's two main architects have diverged over the need for another raft of market-based reforms to public services. That does not mean, as the Blair camp sometimes suggests, the Chancellor is anti-reform. It does mean that he sees less of a need than ardent Blairites for more "choice, contestability and diversity", which inevitably means more state-funded services being delivered by the private sector. Blairites think this permanent revolution is needed to improve services so they enjoy public support. …