Mike Lee, formerly the upper case Chairman of the ARC and now the lower case transport chairman of the new Auckland Council, was grumping, by text message. Why did I want to see him? I "did" him a "couple of Christmases ago". Five years ago, actually. "What's it about, exactly?" This could have gone on all day. The next day, admittedly with some encouragement from me, before I retired, defeated, he sent 12 text messages. This marathon texting effort included one immensely long message: A quote from Conrad he used in his farewell speech as Chairman. "There on the waters' forlorn stream drifts a ship, a ghostly ship ... They pass and make sign in brotherly hail ..." and so on and on, about "beating canvas" and "as good a crowd as ever fisted with wild cries ..."

How very melodramatic, and blokey. "Yeah," he replied, "Conrad was like that." And is he? "Ha, ha. What do you think?" I think he is as tough as boiled boots. He used to be a sailor, a Morse code ships' radio officer. His iPhone ring spells, in Morse code: Your Phone Is Ringing. This is a very annoying noise, but he loves it. "I'm the only person in politics who can read Morse code. It's one of my skills. I like the music of Morse. You don't hear it any more because that's back in the 20th century." So I think he is capable of sentiment . "Sentiment is good, isn't it?" he said, by text, of course. "Kinda like what Shakespeare said about the quality of mercy ..."

He managed to sound, in his first messages, like Eeyore, should Eeyore be a text messaging terror. He bears a remarkable resemblance to that donkey. He has the most awful posture and mooches about with his shoulders up by his ears, which gives him a melancholic air. He always looks crumpled, as though he'd had a terrible row with his clothes. The last time I saw him he was playing with a fountain pen and managed to get ink all over himself. Today he has browny muck all down the front of his trousers. I thought I'd better point this out: "What have you done to your trousers?" He said, "Oh. Good on you," and brushed vaguely at himself, without effect. "How long have I been walking around like that?" I would have said, "How the hell would I know?", but he'd already forgotten about his trousers.

He'd wandered off in search of the swipe card he needs to get in and out of the about to be defunct ARC building. He'd lost this somewhere between meeting us in the cafe and getting us to his office.

What's this about, exactly? We would get to that eventually, along our discursive way. You could take his style for shambolic (those trousers; that swipe card) That would be a good trick, but it's a quirk. Still, it's a useful one for a politician. He might shuffle about, dropping things on his clothes, and losing things, but he's a very successful politician. He's clever and strategic and you'd mistake the outer muddle for the state of his brain at your peril.

So what this was about, was what was in the paper the day I contacted him, as he would have well known. I said, "don't you read the paper?" and he muttered something about republicanism and Princess Kate's wedding frock. There was a very big headline: Lee gets stuck into Joyce over rail tunnel project. He had written a blog - he writes long blogs, as well as long emails and text messages - in which he used the phrase "small-town redneck stuff", about the Transport Minister, Steven Joyce's views on roads and "pro-urban sprawl".

This was picked up, of course, according to me. He is professing surprise. He must have known that'd get attention. "I don't know! I don't know these things. I mean, I'm not all knowing!" This is baloney, but okay. He knows it now. "I'll tell you how the media works," he said, failing not to smirk. "If I put out a press release saying Steven Joyce is a redneck, it would be thrown in the rubbish bin immediately." Oh it would not. "Absolutely it would. Then when you really want something to be covered, the media suddenly gets all diffident."

I don't know who he thinks he's talking to, but it is very kind of him to give me a lesson on how the media works. He is very good with the media, mostly. He likes journalists as a breed (some politicians do; others don't). He does have what he calls "blues" with them from time to time. He recently sent me a very long email telling me off for repeating what he called "Hubbard's smear" against him. The gist of this was that Dick Hubbard said Lee stabbed him in the back and Lee said he certainly did not: he told him what he thought to his face. Anyway, it was a very snippy - and long - email and I replied saying I'd get around to reading it one day, and correcting a mistake he'd made very far down the thing - thus proving I had obviously read every word. He sent another email calling me "snooty". But he doesn't hold grudges. When I mentioned this exchange he said, he'd rather not dwell on it, if I didn't mind. But that he would apologise for the "snooty". Perhaps that's why he prefers electronic exchanges: He finds it easier to give you a whack from a distance. He likes to be thought of as a nice person and thinks he is: "On the inside!"

Of course he knew what I wanted to see him about. "Probably." You have to read his blog, he says, "in the context of the thing". He is a good enough politician and has been around long enough to know that if he uses the phrases "small-town" and "redneck" about the minister, there will be a spat reported. "What I wouldn't like to see, and it would be totally non-productive and it would be totally egotistical, for this huge project to be distracted as some sort of spat between Mike Lee and the honourable Steven Joyce."

He says he is not backtracking - Joyce had a go at his beloved, now gone, ARC; so he gave him that whack back. But he is, he says, happy to offer an olive branch. An olive branch! More like an entire damn tree, I said after listening to this: "I believe that this particular minister is intelligent and powerful enough to become a major historical figure." He didn't expand on that, or on my "entire damn tree" exclamation. I waited but he was saved by his phone ringing from any explanation. (He insists he doesn't play political games so I'll have to assume he wasn't suggesting the PM should watch out he's not felled.) So instead we learned about how knowing Morse code is his unique skill. Did I say discursive? He is very good at appearing to meander: what looks like wandering off at random means he ends up at a nice distance from the place you were attempting to lead him.

He has a few other skills; cleverness, obviously. So what was he up to in his blog? He spends much of his free time (to his wife's annoyance) watching war documentaries on the History Channel. "Isn't it terrible for a peace- nik to be fascinated with war?" Some peacenik. He is always having battles. "Battles are costly. It's better if you can come up with a win/win situation where people go away feeling they've got something out of it. If you focus on the issues rather than the personalities that can be done. But if you just focus on a battle of wills, then it will become a zero sum game, with one winner and one loser." Another thing I think about him: He should stop watching that war porn. Although perhaps it pays off. He is a keen student of strategy and personality. He said, about the Joyce spat, "well, I think some creative tension ... might be helpful in this circumstance." So having generated some creative tension he can go around offering olive groves, making himself look entirely reasonable.

He said, in response to his no doubt well-examined relationship with ego: "Humility!" He believes in humility because, "it means it's easier to make a tactical withdrawal."

Now he's the mayor's tactical face of transport. You might think he'd be saddened by the loss of his Chairman's job; that it's a bit of a come-down not to be the big boss. He's sentimental to a degree; he's a pragmatic politician. He says he's had people in his office breaking down. He hasn't. That would be "self-indulgent" because he still has a job. And, "it means that I don't wake up in the middle of the night, worried. So in some ways it's a burden lifted."

He must miss the status. He said, "I miss my PA." You can see that he would. We turned his office upside down looking for the lost swipe card - "where was I? Where was I sitting?" - gave up, and went downstairs. I watched him greet a visiting delegation from China who had come for a meeting with a man with clout wearing pants covered in God knows what.

He probably managed to stick his hoof in his mouth and somehow get away with it. He did with me, within seconds. He attempted, and mangled, a loud compliment in the cafe downstairs. The result was an implication that I was enormously fat. "Oh dear. Oh God," he Eeyored, "the interview got off to a bad start when I made a faux pas."

He says he has no charisma and because of the "compliment", I'm going to agree. He does have considerable muddling, and occasionally maddening, charm which I would like to be able to say was tactical, but nobody could manufacture it - and hardly anyone else could carry it off.