Stewart Stevenson feels the Holyrood heat

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THE freezing conditions which brought Scotland to a standstill showed signs of thawing but the controversy over the way the cold snap was managed yesterday showed no signs of easing.

• No thaw on the cards for pressure on Stewart Stevenson

Pressure was mounting on Stewart Stevenson last night as opposition parties discussed tabling a no confidence motion in the transport minister after his botched handling of the winter crisis.

The Scotsman understands that parties have been holding "informal talks" on forcing a no confidence motion in Holyrood on Thursday.

At First Minister's Questions yesterday Alex Salmond supported his minister saying that he had his "full confidence".

But Mr Stevenson's case was not helped by an unconvincing performance in the chamber from the First Minister, who apologised for the government's failure to respond well to Monday's severe blizzards under a sustained attack from all three main opposition party leaders.

Forecasts predicted a gradual thaw in weather during the next couple of days but the warmer conditions did not signal an end to the disruption caused by the unseasonably bitter spell.

Rising temperatures last night triggered warnings of burst pipes and ice falling from roofs, while forecasters said more snow would return on Monday.

Drivers also faced new misery, just as empty filling stations were being restocked, with predictions that petrol prices would today reach a new record high.

Police threatened to tow away abandoned vehicles which blocked roads, which would cost at least 150 to reclaim.

• Sketch: Spring couldn't come too soon for Salmond & Co

At Holyrood, Labour was leading the charge against Mr Stevenson with senior MSPs making overtures to the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.

Although the Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie said Mr Stevenson's coat was on a "shoogly peg", her party has yet to support Labour's bid. The Lib Dems have adopted a similar position following Labour's approach.

Labour has been allocated parliamentary time on Thursday next week and The Scotsman understands that the leadership is considering using it to table a motion of no confidence regardless of whether or not the two other parties give their public backing.

"There is the strong possibility that Labour goes ahead with this, irrespective of what the parties say," a Labour source said."That would force MSPs to say if they were prepared to back him."

Mr Salmond, however, defended his minister during fiery exchanges at Holyrood, but admitted that the government had not done enough to prevent the winter crisis that left 100 motorists stranded on the M8 and M90.

The First Minister said: "I believe the Scottish Government should have done much better in terms of the information flow last Monday to people, our citizens, who were caught in the extraordinary conditions.

"The transport minister apologised for that. I follow his apology. We should have done much better in the information flow to help our fellow citizens who were in a position of extremity, and improvements in that will be made by this government."

But Mr Salmond's defence of Mr Stevenson misfired when his remarks led to accusations that he was blaming the police for the chaos on the roads.

The Labour leader Iain Gray asked Mr Salmond why motorways had not been closed earlier on Monday to get them clear. Mr Salmond's reply heightened the controversy when he insisted: "Even Iain Gray should know that these are police operational matters. These are the matters for Transport Scotland and our police authorities."

Mr Salmond quickly added that the police had done "an extraordinary job". However, Labour claimed that he had sunk to a "new low" and was trying to deflect blame on to the police.

Mr Gray later said: "As usual with Alex Salmond it is always someone else's fault. He refuses to accept any responsibility.

"His lack of leadership during the weather crisis has been a disgrace."

The First Minister's spokesman described Mr Gray's attack as a "gross misrepresentation" of what the First Minister said.

The spokesman pointed out that Mr Salmond had been correct to say that road closures where the police's responsibility. Under the Road, Traffic Regulation Act 1984 it is up to chief constables to make such decisions.

Annabel Goldie, the Conservative leader, attacked Mr Stevenson's failure to react to a Met Office flash warning, issued nine hours before the blizzard, that predicted heavy snow and "widespread icy roads".

To laughter, Ms Goldie quoted an extract from the Scottish Government's own "Ready Winter" website.

According to the website, the government advised people to be "more aware of the weather forecast, especially weather warnings and flood warnings".

Ms Goldie said: "Yesterday the Scottish Government spent the day pretending there had been no severe weather warnings issued on Sunday. Last night we caught them red-handed. They also spent yesterday claiming, as the First Minister said, that the actual fresh snowfall was twice or three times the prediction.

"The Met Office warned of up to 10cm of fresh snow across the Central Belt. My office has spoken to them and they have confirmed the actual fresh snowfall on Monday was between five and 10cm. Scotland is losing patience and confidence in the transport minister.He has been complacent, he has been negligent and he has been belligerent."