LONDON — Britain’s coalition government survived the most serious challenge yet to its austerity plans on Thursday when Parliament narrowly approved a sharp increase in college fees. But violent student protests in central London, including an attack on a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla to the theater, provided a stark measure of growing public resistance.
The 62-year-old heir to the British throne and his 63-year-old wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, were said by palace officials to have been unharmed in the incident, which occurred when a group of about 50 protesters broke through a cordon of motorcycle police while approaching London’s theater district in slow-speed traffic.
A photograph of the couple, in formal evening dress, showed them registering shock as protesters beat on the side of their armored, chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce with sticks and bottles, smashing a side window, denting a rear panel and splashing the car with white paint.
Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack on the royal couple’s car “shocking and regrettable.”
Other violence across the city center continued into the night. Scotland Yard said at mid-evening that at least 12 police officers were injured, six of them seriously. At the height of the unrest, rioters threw snooker balls, lighted flares and fireworks at the police, and tried to topple statues in Westminster Square, across from the Commons. At least 43 people were arrested.
The violence provided a disturbing backdrop to the day’s political events, which were themselves a watershed moment for Cameron’s seven-month-old coalition government. The coalition confronted a difficult rupture as the Liberal Democrats, the coalition’s junior partners, split among themselves.
Although half of the Liberal bloc voted against the tuition hike, the coalition won the House of Commons vote, 323-302. The 21-vote margin was far short of the coalition’s nominal 84-vote majority. In the end, Liberal leader Nick Clegg and other Liberal ministers voted for the increase. Without the backing of the Liberals, Cameron’s Conservatives would likely have to face a new election, with no certainty they could win a contest that would center on the austerity program.
Recent weeks have seen other occasions when street protests have spilled over into violence, but nothing on the scale of Thursday’s unrest, which was punctuated by the unexpected and, many said, ill-advised, appearance of Prince Charles and Camilla in the midst of the uproar.