Simon Bridges’ family tragedy that changed it all

Never more sure about what matters most, the National Party stalwart opens up about the frightening event that shocked him into quitting politics

When Simon Bridges announced his retirement from politics last week, there was one thing he didn’t share with the nation – the heart-stopping drama involving his eight-year-old son Harry that changed the course of his life forever.

The former Leader of the Opposition looked decidedly relaxed as he told reporters he was leaving politics to spend more time with his family, saying he’d spent many hours discussing the decision with his wife Natalie.

But behind his self-assured demeanour, the recent trauma of almost losing his precious son was almost too difficult to bear.

It was on December 2 last year that Simon, 45, and Natalie, 39, were told their then seven-year-old son Harry had been hit by a swing in the school playground.

“He was just running past and it hit him in the liver,” recalls Natalie. “He had the second-to-highest grade liver injury. It was almost destroyed.”

‘I’m choosing my family and that’s going to give me a new lease on life’

Thankfully, Simon was in Tauranga that fateful day. Usually, he is in Wellington during the week, but he was set to pick up new National Party leader Christopher Luxon from the airport to drive to a fruit and vege shop, where he was to be announced as the new Finance Spokesman for the Opposition. But those plans were quickly aborted.

“I got a call from the school and obviously it was fortunate Simon was here because I’m useless in situations of emergency involving the children,” Natalie explains. “I just completely lose the ability to think and function properly. He went straight to the school and I was closer to the hospital, so I met them there. Your whole world just melts. Nothing else really matters.”

With his son “white as a sheet” but still “somewhat” able to talk, it took some time before Simon realised the severity of Harry’s injury.

“I’m almost embarrassed to say this,” he confesses. “I couldn’t really comprehend how serious it was until he had nearly 20 medical staff all around him. They were just swarming around him. I thought, ‘This is not good,’ and he was in Tauranga Hospital for only a few hours before doctors made the decision to transport him to Auckland.”

Natalie continues, “I was standing next to Harry in ED – and I don’t mean this negatively, because politics has been amazing – but the absurdity of our life became quite clear in that moment. I decided then that I would push a bit harder for things to change.”

Simon agrees, “It did change everything because life had to stop. We haven’t really had that before with anything else – where that was all that mattered. That was the start of us knowing that we had to change our life and priorities.”

‘That was the start of us knowing that we had to change our life and priorities’

Harry had suffered severe trauma to his liver, had an internal bleed and there was no way his terrified parents could know what would come next. Then Harry was flown to Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital, but the ordeal was far from over. “You can’t do much with the liver – you just have to pray the bleeding stops because if it didn’t, they’d have to operate. Livers are very difficult,” Natalie

explains. “It was a watch and wait situation.”

Natalie spent seven long nights in the hospital beside her son before, thankfully, his liver started to repair.

“Thank God he made it through and he did very well,” she says. “The bleeding stopped by itself.”

While Harry was well enough to eventually return to his family in Tauranga, their summer was very low-key to ensure there was no further damage.

“Harry was in a fragile position. He’s a lively character and he couldn’t really do anything because he couldn’t run any risk of injuring himself,” Simon recalls.

“We sort of spent several weeks just moping around the home, and we had a lot of time to work and think through things. There is no doubt the family factor is the biggest reason I’m leaving politics.”

Not only had he seen how quickly life could change with his son’s injury, there was also another event that solidified Simon’s resolve. His friend and National MP Tim van de Molen fell off a ladder while doing some work on his farm.

“He’s going to be OK, but he’s been in hospital and in bed now for weeks,” says Simon. “It still has an impact.”

As a new chapter begins, Simon and Natalie want to strengthen bonds with their loved ones near and far.

Reflecting on life, he says, “I don’t want to look back and have my kids in their 20s with problems because I was useless. I’m choosing my family and that’s going to give me a new lease on life.

“I’m sad at some level because there’s a lot I’m going to miss about this place. I still love politics, but I’m not going to regret leaving… I think I’ll look back from time to time with a little bit of envy and a little bit of a sense that I could do it better!”

On the day the Weekly catches up with the former Opposition Finance Spokesman and his wife via video interview, it is also their eldest child Emlyn’s 10th birthday. But while Natalie is in their hometown of Tauranga, Simon is in his Wellington office.

“I’ll have to look it up, but I feel like he’s never been here for the children’s birthdays,” Natalie says.

Due to the lack of flights, Simon will get home later in the evening, when he’ll hopefully get to enjoy some leftover cake.

It’s just one of many special moments the former Crown prosecutor and politician has missed in his children’s lives – but all that is set to change in the next few weeks when he steps down.

“I don’t want to overplay this because Natalie is a superstar, but I’m looking forward to helping out in the morning, getting them in the car and to school. I want to share the load more.”

“I still love politics, but I’m not going to regret leaving,” says Simon.

And their future is going to look very different than the way it is now. For starters, their house is on the market and they are moving to the “big smoke” (probably Auckland), where there are more opportunities for them both, including Natalie’s plans to expand her business Blink PR, though they are quick to add how much they love Tauranga.

“I have lived here for over 20 years. My mum lives here,” Simon says. “We will always have a home connection here.”

He is also pursuing business opportunities, but jokes it won’t be a farm with alpacas or llamas because “that would be trading in one form of punishment for another.”

Instead, Simon anticipates he will be in full-time work. There are hints it is a television role, although he is as yet unable to say more.

There are also plans to travel to Natalie’s native England later this year. Due to the pandemic, she hasn’t seen her extended family since 2019, something particularly painful as they are a tight-knit bunch. Natalie speaks to her mum every day on FaceTime, saying, “She’s my best friend”, and her father turns 80 soon.

She’ll also see her sister Emily and meet her almost three-year-old niece Dilys for the first time. “It’s going to be great,” she smiles.

Emlyn and Harry are excited at the prospect of spending more time with their dad, while adorable four-year-old Jemima is still a little too young to understand what’s happening around her.

The couple’s withdrawal from politics is also a massive change for Natalie and Simon, who met while they were both studying at Oxford University and married in 2005, when she was 21 and he was 27. The pair moved to New Zealand the same year and have spent just two years living together full-time – and none since they’ve been parents – due to their jobs.

“Maybe the next interview you do with us will be our divorce,” Natalie jokes, with a twinkle in her eye.

“Don’t say that!” Simon interjects laughing.

Later he clarifies, “Politics is weird. I have still been going away every week and that has been all of the children’s lifetimes, and now Natalie and I are going to be in the same bed every night! I imagine the kids will get into bed and try and kick me out because they want Natalie, not me.

“Who knows?” he adds wistfully, “before they get too old, some of them may even possibly want me…”

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