The Minister without Portfolio, long famed as Labour's spin-doctor-in- chief and architect of Tony Blair's party reforms, is to stand for one of seven constituency seats on the ruling National Executive Committee. The withdrawal of both Gordon Brown and Jack Straw from this year's election had put Ken Livingstone, former Greater London Council leader and now Brent East MP, in pole position to win a place. So the two men, legend now has it, are locked head to head in the latest bitter struggle between left and right.
Or maybe not. Maybe that battle was won long ago, the final seal stamped on its last treaty by Labour's landslide victory in the general election, the few last stragglers tolerated - or sometimes not - as relics of a bygone age.
If there is one thing Tony Blair's bright, shiny tendency can say with certainty, it is that it has the upper hand. No sane person on the left believes the battle it now wages is an equal, or even seriously a winnable one. If Labour's modernisers can abolish Clause IV, clinch a 95 per cent "yes" vote for their manifesto proposals, and top the lot by taking 418 seats at a general election, they have little left to prove.
Then why is Peter Mandelson so determined to win an NEC seat that this August finds him campaigning frantically, while less energetic men sun themselves on beaches?
The simplest explanation being advanced by party officials is that someone simply had to stop Mr Livingstone. But this will not wash. Even with his presence added to that of Dennis Skinner and Diane Abbott, the left would still be outnumbered by 22 to three on the executive. And anyway, a busy Minister without Portfolio with a millennium exhibition to run, a dozen other affairs of state to attend to and a somewhat patchy claim to party popularity is hardly the best man for the job.
Even those closest to Mr Mandelson agree that the "scupper Ken" line does not draw the whole picture. The truth is that the minister wants more than anything to be what one friend described as "a big and important politician".
Although Labour's former director of communications has come far, there has never been a real test of his popularity in the party. Never having stood for any internal position, he has never been able to prove that party members really want what he has to offer. The key to this puzzle is a deep need for legitimacy.
Although Mr Mandelson's reputation is that of a revolutionary moderniser, his friends point out that he has deep roots within the Labour Party. He joined the party at 15; and his grandfather, Herbert Morrison, was deputy prime minister after Labour's 1945 landslide victory. Mandelson's assault on the NEC should be seen not as an aberration by a man whose closeness to the Prime Minister already gives him all the power he needs, but as part of a long, sustained campaign to become a major political player.
Will he succeed in reaching this latest staging-post? It is very hard to tell. While tales of his unpopularity abound - Mr Livingstone joked yesterday that his fellow MPs would stand him more drinks than he had been bought in 10 years if he beat off his challenger - no one knows what party members really think. And it is they who will decide, by one member, one vote.
Mr Mandelson is taking no chances - he has met more local party members since the election than any minister - but that is in the nature of the beast. One of the secrets of his success is that he rarely leaves anything to chance. The story of how he dropped into a fish and chip shop to ask for a portion of guacamole during the campaign for his Hartlepool seat may be apocryphal, but reports that this metropolitan creature was seen regularly on the terraces at Hartlepool United certainly are not.
His chances of success this time are complicated by one more wild card. While Gordon Brown's and Jack Straw's votes are unlikely to transfer neatly to Mr Livingstone, the Welsh minister Peter Hain is also standing and could expect to pick up quite a few of them. It is just possible that in the end it will be he, and not Red Ken, who will see off Peter Mandelson's challenge.
And will it matter if Mandelson loses? To him, certainly, although it will not have much effect on his position as a minister. No one puts himself up for such a public test of strength without fearing the humiliation of defeat. But to the Government? To the Labour Party?
Maybe Mr Mandelson will win this battle and will go on to be the "big and serious" politician that he so clearly wants to be. And maybe, in years to come, history will remember him not as a spin-doctor and moderniser but as the man who rebuilt the NHS, sorted out the pensions mess or launched a British space programme. But for now, we have no evidence of this. What we do know is that Peter Mandelson is a very effective spin-doctor. All the rest is personal ambition, pure and simple.
That is not exactly a criticism, of course. No one gets anywhere in politics unless they are personally ambitious. But to suggest that there is some grand battle of principles going on here, that in some way New Labour needs this victory, is palpable nonsense. New Labour is already sated with victory, and some may wonder why the feeling has not spread as far as the office of the Minister Without Portfolio.
The portentous tone of the debate over what will happen in this election proves just one thing - that, as usual, Peter Mandelson is doing what he does best: spinning. Perhaps Labour's voters should ask themselves whether they would prefer him to do it for his party, for the Government, or just for himself.Reuse content