LONDON — The chaos and dysfunction of the British government were on full display on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Theresa May preparing to request a short delay to Britain’s departure from the European Union after a bitter dispute in her cabinet over her plan for a lengthier extension.
The deadlock in the cabinet underscored the political crisis gripping the government as the deadline for Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc draws ever closer. Even Mrs. May’s spokesman acknowledged as much, saying the prime minister had warned this could happen if her Brexit plan were rejected.
Mrs. May was expected to forge ahead, writing a letter to European Union leaders asking for an extension to the Article 50 negotiating process. Exactly what she will ask for is still unconfirmed, though on Wednesday her officials were not denying widespread reports that she would request only a short delay, perhaps to June 30. That raises the prospect that Britain could still suffer a disorderly departure in the summer.
The prospect of any delay to Brexit, as Britain’s departure from the bloc is known, is a broad and humiliating reversal for Mrs. May. It is sure to infuriate many members of her Conservative Party, most of whom support leaving the European Union with no deal if necessary, and to reaffirm the cynicism, rampant among many of the 17.4 million Britons who voted to leave, that the elites in London would never let them have their way.
Her decision to ask only for a brief extension was sharply criticized by the opposition Labour Party.
“Theresa May is desperate once again to impose a binary choice between her deal and no deal despite Parliament clearly ruling out both of those options last week,” the shadow secretary for Brexit, Keir Starmer, said in a statement. “What the government should be doing is showing real leadership, making good on their commitment to break the deadlock and secure an extension with a genuine purpose.”
Limiting the request to a short delay is the latest in a series of political gyrations from Mrs. May. Last week she said that, if Parliament failed to vote swiftly for her plans — which have been rejected twice — then Britain would face a lengthy delay and have to take part in European elections in May.
It was that prospect that triggered a rebellion from Brexit supporters in her cabinet on Tuesday, and reports of resignation threats, that appear to have prompted another retreat. A short delay would keep alive hopes among hard-line Brexit supporters in Parliament, who want to leave without any agreement, and they will be under little pressure to approve Mrs. May’s deal.
Though the political paralysis over Brexit is in Parliament, the decision on whether to grant the delay lies with the European Union, whose leaders had been expected to agree to some sort of extra time when they gather in Brussels on Thursday. But that could now be in doubt.
Speaking to the German radio station Deutschlandfunk on Wednesday, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said that any decision by the European Union might have to be postponed until the end of next week, after fresh votes in Parliament. That could be on the eve of Britain’s departure, scheduled for March 29.
An extension could come with conditions, and European leaders stressed on Tuesday that they want to see some form of strategy in place to resolve the crisis. They worry that three months is not sufficient for Mrs. May to achieve success, and that she will be back to request another delay in the summer. That would be hard for them to accommodate for legal reasons, because Britain would not have participated in European elections.
Since becoming prime minister in 2016, Mrs. May’s overriding objective has been to extricate Britain from the bloc while maintaining the unity of her Conservative Party.
By beginning the negotiations in March 2017, she committed herself to an exit by March 29, 2019, within the two years dictated by the bloc’s rules, either with or without an agreement — a promise that critics have pounced on as one of her many misjudgments.
She has largely failed in that mission, and the underlying political problem for Mrs. May remains unresolved. There is no majority in Parliament for any approach other than a “soft” Brexit, with Britain staying in the bloc’s customs union and close to its single market. But that would require cross-party cooperation and would surely rip apart the Tories.
On the other hand, if a hard-liner like the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, should supplant Mrs. May, that would just as surely prompt widespread resignations and defections among pro-European Conservatives.
Mrs. May is hoping she can still salvage something from the wreckage of her Brexit negotiations by making the delay a short one. Extra time would at least stave off the prospect of a disorderly, economically costly Brexit with no deal next week, which Parliament has made clear it wants to avoid.
Continental economies would be hit too, if not as severely as Britain’s, by a departure without a deal, so European Union leaders are unlikely to rebuff Mrs. May completely. But their patience is being sorely tested.
Mrs. May is likely to try to return to Parliament next week and stage another vote on her deal, even though it has been rejected twice by lawmakers by large margins.
Her plan would give Britain power over immigration from Europe at some point, but would tie the country to the European Union’s customs and trade rules until the end of 2020.
On Monday, the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said the prime minister could not put her deal to a third vote this week, citing parliamentary rules devised in 1604 to prohibit multiple votes on the same proposition.
Depending on what the talks with the European Union yield, Mrs. May could return with a changed proposition by next week, making it harder for Mr. Bercow to block another effort by Mrs. May to get a vote in Parliament.
If her deal is rejected again by lawmakers, Mrs. May could be forced to change tack, and perhaps allow Parliament to consider other options, like keeping closer economic ties to the European Union.
Mrs. May, nothing if not stubborn, is not giving up on her unpopular blueprint for Brexit. Indeed, she excels at buying more time, and a delay would give her at least a couple of more weeks to resolve the crisis before another critical deadline kicks in.
Like most everything else with Brexit, the process of requesting and granting an extension is no simple matter, which helps explain why it created such bitter divisions in the cabinet on Tuesday.
For legal reasons, a delay beyond the end of June would be likely to require Britain to participate in elections to the next European Parliament, making a mockery of British plans to leave the bloc.
But as another legal matter, a decision on whether to stage the elections — and effectively to go for a longer delay — must be made during the second week of April. The Brexiteers want to use the upcoming European elections as a sort of backstop, to borrow a phrase, to force Britain to leave, since it would be legally problematic to remain in the bloc without representatives in the European Parliament.
If a long delay is awkward for Britain, it is not straightforward for the European Union either. It would mean the British enjoy the full rights of membership despite their efforts to leave the club.
In that event, European officials are concerned that Britain might try to use its power to paralyze the bloc’s other business as leverage to extract more concessions on its exit deal.
Such considerations are likely to be weighed when leaders of all 27 other European Union countries discuss the delay plan on Thursday — without Mrs. May.