Ming has planned his new office, but Huhne has the upper hand

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Sir Menzies Campbell has begun preparing for life in office - down to planning the furniture - as leader of the Liberal Democrats, despite trailing Chris Huhne in the betting.

As the Liberal Democrat leadership contest reaches its final furlong this week, allies of Sir Menzies claimed they would emerge victorious in the battle to take over from Charles Kennedy and said detailed talks had begun about the appointment of key posts on Sir Menzies' leadership team.

But allies of Chris Huhne expressed confidence that they were 2 per cent ahead of Sir Menzies and were leading in the south of England, where most Liberal Democrat members live.

"We think we are considerably in front in the South-east, London and the South-west. In Wales we are just in front and in Scotland we think we are in front," said one aide. "We think overall we are one or two points in front."

MPs supporting Mr Huhne claimed yesterday that he had been a victim of a whispering campaign, with negative stories about their candidate emanating from rival camps. Susan Kramer, MP for Richmond Park, said: "I think there has been some negativity in the last few days but it is something we have to learn to live with if you have been doing very well. I am feeling very confident about the result."

Sir Menzies' campaign said their canvas returns showed they were ahead of Mr Huhne and would gain up to 60 per cent of the second-preference votes of people voting for Simon Hughes.

With Mr Hughes expected to come third, his second choice votes could decide the winner.

Last week detailed talks began about the shape of the party under Sir Menzies, who is currently acting leader.

He was said to have "taken charge" in a meeting where key roles, including the running of his office, were discussed. The talks centred on whether to reward key figures in the campaign for the leadership, such as Lord Kirkwood, with advisory positions in the new leader's office. A reshuffle after the spring conference would promote MPs who took an active role, such as Ed Davey, Vince Cable and Nick Clegg. Sir Menzies is also planning to bring in professionals working outside the party to deal with fundraising and PR.

The result of the ballot of all 73,000 Liberal Democrat members will be announced on Thursday, a day before the party's spring conference opens. The new leader will make his first speech in the role on Sunday.

"We are obviously planning who will take on key roles because the new leader will have to hit the ground running," said one close aide to Sir Menzies. "People like Archy Kirkwood who ran the campaign are likely to get key advisory positions. We are obviously talking about exactly who the staff will be."



Chris Huhne is now the bookies' odds-on favourite


Sir Menzies Campbell was the early frontrunner


Simon Hughes is now considered the rank outsider