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British Prime Minister Theresa May has sown more confusion into the Brexit process by opening the door to delaying Britain’s departure from the European Union without saying how long the extension might last.

On Tuesday, Ms. May said members of Parliament would be able to vote to extend the March 29 deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the EU if she is unable to win parliamentary support for a Brexit deal with the bloc.

Ms. May has been scrambling for weeks to salvage a withdrawal agreement she struck with the EU that has met fierce opposition from within her Conservative Party caucus. On Tuesday, she told the House of Commons that she believed a final deal was still possible before March 29, but she acknowledged that many MPs have become “genuinely worried that time is running out” and that businesses are growing uneasy about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. The EU would have to consent to an extension and Ms. May refused to say how long it might last, indicating only that she’d like any delay to be “as short as possible”.

The announcement was a reversal for the Prime Minister who had spent months insisting that she would not delay Brexit. That stance had rattled many business leaders who feared the U.K. would crash out of the EU without any arrangements for trade, banking, transportation and many other issues. A government report released after Ms. May spoke confirmed many of those fears by pointing out how unprepared the country was for a no-deal Brexit.

According to the report, only 40,000 of 240,000 businesses have signed up for a special customs number they will need in order to trade with the EU after Brexit. The report also said that a majority of people have no idea they will face new EU customs and immigration controls after Brexit or that they will require an International Driving Permit to drive in the EU. Food imports from the EU could be disrupted, the report noted, and there will be widespread problems for financial service companies, law firms, chemical manufacturers, car makers and transport companies. The government also hasn’t come close to converting 40 EU trade deals into U.K. agreements. Ministers had hoped to have all 40 deals in place by the Brexit deadline, but so far just six have been signed and they don’t include large trading partners such as Canada, Japan or South Korea.

Ms. May has been under increasing pressure to rule out a no-deal Brexit and extend the March 29 deadline. On Tuesday, three junior cabinet ministers said they would resign unless Ms. May rejected leaving without a deal and up to a dozen senior ministers are believed to have also threatened to quit. Ms. May finally bowed to the pressure and agreed to allow MPs to vote on an extension. However, she faced criticism from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who said Ms. May had been "grotesquely reckless” in her Brexit strategy and was just trying to “run down the clock.”

In her revised timetable, Ms. May is due to present a new Brexit deal to parliament on March 12 and, if it’s rejected, MPs will vote over the next two days on whether to leave the EU without a deal or move to extend the deadline. “Let me be clear, I do not want to see [the deadline] extended,” she told MPs. “Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on 29 March.”

EU officials have indicated that any delay beyond the end of June would be difficult because of elections to the European parliament. Those elections are in May and the new parliament convenes on July 2. The U.K. isn’t participating in the elections because the country is supposed to be out of the EU as of March 29. Any extension of that deadline beyond the end of June would mean the U.K. would have to field candidates for the European parliament. “What kind of message would that send to the more than 17 million people who voted to leave the EU nearly three years ago now?” Ms. May asked MPs on Tuesday.

It’s also not clear if an extension will make it any easier for Ms. May to get her Brexit deal approved by parliament. The main sticking point remains the so-called backstop, a provision in the withdrawal agreement that guarantees no hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland by ensuring that Northern Ireland remains linked to the EU’s regulations. Many Tory MPs say the backstop will keep the U.K. tied to the EU indefinitely and they wanted it removed or restricted with a time limit. The EU has refused to make any changes to the agreement, arguing the backstop protects assurances made in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence and eliminated border controls.

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