Family

At home with new National Party leader Simon Bridges and his family

Simon reveals the surprising story behind his whirlwind courtship with his wife and jokes that sometimes home life is so full on, he goes to Parliament for a break!

By Lynley Ward

Cradling his 12-week-old daughter in the crook of his arm, Simon Bridges whispers words of adoration before gently kissing her golden-brown hair.

The newly-elected leader of the National Party is besotted with the latest addition to his family, Jemima Alicja Ruth, enjoying stolen moments that he's all too aware will be few and far between as he takes on the most important role
of his political career.

Fortunately, Jemima – unquestionably the apple of her father's eye – has proven to be a gem, already smiling and sleeping up a storm, and only crying if it's an absolute emergency. She's oblivious as her older brothers Emlyn, five, and Harry, three, burst through the front door and head for the backyard during our photo shoot at the family's busy Tauranga home.

"We secretly wanted a girl," confesses Simon, 41, who has been married to wife Natalie for 12 years.

"We had two boys, so it was just amazing to get everything we wanted here. Jemima has just been a perfect angel."

It's been an incredible few weeks for the politician, who was born and raised in West Auckland's Te Atatu Peninsula, and who now holds high hopes of becoming New Zealand's first Maori prime minister in the 2020 election.

Fresh from winning the position left vacant by Bill English, Simon says the bid to contest the top job was an exciting opportunity and one he could not let pass by. In fact, he insists it couldn't have come at a more perfect time.

The disappointment of losing last year's general election gifted his young family a rare summer holiday free from the pressures of government for the first time in a decade.

Simon explains, "We've had the best summer ever as a family. We didn't book anything because, with a newborn, we didn't know how she would be. But she's so fantastic, in the end, we went on a bit of a road trip. It's meant a guilt-free summer of really great memories that we'll never be able to recreate."

However, former Crown prosecutor Simon admits he did have to win over his English-born wife Natalie, 35, before any tilt at the leadership could be possible.

The pair fell head over heels in love while at the University of Oxford in 2004. They were both studying postgraduate courses – Natalie romantic poetry and Simon civil law – when against the better judgment of clergy and even his own family, they married within 12 months of laying eyes on each other.

"We went to a number of vicars to marry us, but they fobbed us off," reveals Natalie.

Simon adds, "No-one thought it would work. Most people thought it was just ridiculous."

But the lovebirds finally persuaded the university vicar to perform the marriage rites in a 1000-year-old church a week after sitting their final exams. Despite the exquisite setting, their limited student budget meant it was far from a lavish affair.

"We had no money at all," recalls Natalie. "We couldn't even send out invitations!"

The happy couple at their Oxford wedding
The happy couple at their Oxford wedding

But perhaps the bravest move for the girl from working-class Coventry was the decision to leave her family and friends. Natalie flew to the other side of the world with her new lawyer husband to start married life – albeit on different planes.

"Simon had a round-the-world ticket and he was already booked on a flight," remembers Natalie. "I couldn't get on it, so we had to book a different flight for me. So at the start of our honeymoon, we were roughly in the air at the same time.

"I landed in Hong Kong waiting for him – I don't think I even had a purse. I literally turned up at this airport waiting for this chap, hoping it was all going to be alright. Fortunately, he turned up!"

Once in Aotearoa, the go-getting Oxford graduate immediately embarked on a successful media career, which saw her become the editor of fashion magazine Simply You, before setting up her own public-relations company Blink PR.

She is now busy with three children, as well as sitting on the board for several Bay of Plenty art foundations. But the new mum gave her wholehearted blessing when Simon approached her about his campaign for National Party leader.

He tells, "We talked about it and I'm conscious that it is a sacrifice for any family, but Natalie's view was that we haven't come this far to not go for it and make a difference."

Natalie says giving birth a little more than two months ago is a good metaphor for the way the couple have always taken massive leaps of faith together.

"We just embrace things as they come," she explains. "Life is for seizing opportunities."

Despite the drawbacks of a political career that often sees the family separated for days at a time, Simon knows he is fortunate. He describes Natalie as a "superstar" for taking the lion's share of the responsibilities when it comes to the kids.

"Sometimes I go to Parliament for a break!" he jokes. "There's no doubt about it, I do love the boys dearly, but they are very high-energy."

However, he does his best to make time for his sons when he's home.

"I do feel guilty, but I know that these little guys have a very stable home life. We try to make sure we've set aside time each weekend as a family. I'm quite event-focused, so we try to do something because otherwise it's very easy to slip back into work. There's a lot of eating out when I'm at home because it's a good way to bond."

He's come a long way since growing up in Auckland's Te Atatu Peninsula!
He's come a long way since growing up in Auckland's Te Atatu Peninsula!

"When he's there, Simon is very present with the children," adds Natalie, who says the couple consult each other's timetables to reserve family time.

"While we don't have a lot of time, we really make the most of it."

The pair also treasure family mealtimes, something Simon values from his own childhood as the youngest of six children in a Baptist minister's household.

"We make sure we always have dinner together so whatever the boys are doing, we sit around and even if we're all busy and Daddy's got to go to a meeting, that's always a time where we get to chat about what happened at school or work."

The latest development in the couple's busy lives couldn't have been more perfectly timed. Natalie's parents had flown out from England to see their new granddaughter and were more than happy to take charge when she flew to Wellington to be at her husband's side for the big announcement.

It's something Natalie has considered important from the moment her husband won the Tauranga seat in 2008. "I've always been at his side as much as I can," she smiles. "I really enjoy getting involved."

And there will be plenty more things to get involved with as the couple gear up for their busiest year to date.

Simon grins, "It's been a crazy time. I believe things happen for a reason, with everything working together for good. So in a way, being in opposition, spending time with Jemima, and now this surprise leadership contest and victory, it all sort of fits together like a jigsaw puzzle."

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