Sir Keir Starmer, the clear favourite in the Labour leadership contest, committed on Sunday to offering his two rivals top jobs in his shadow cabinet if he wins.

Speaking only 24 hours before ballot papers start being distributed, the shadow Brexit secretary struck a more inclusive note than he did a week earlier when he refused to commit to having Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy in his shadow cabinet.

Asked the same question at an official Labour party hustings in Durham, Starmer said that he previously dodged the question because he did not think it was right for candidates to be “jostling for positions” during the contest.

But his original answer was taken as a snub. “I would happily offer both these candidates a top job in the shadow cabinet and I’d happily serve them if they wanted me to do the same,” Starmer clarified on Sunday.

A close ally of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, the Salford MP and shadow business secretary has been groomed as a potential leftwing contender for the top job.

Pitch Promising to champion “progressive patriotism”.

The Wigan MP has built a reputation as a campaigner for her constituency and others like it, many of which have fallen to the Tories. A soft-left candidate, she resigned from the shadow cabinet in 2016 over Corbyn’s leadership and handling of the EU referendum.

Pitch Wants to “bring Labour home” to voters that have abandoned the party in its traditional strongholds.

Ambitious former director of public prosecutions has led the charge for remain in the shadow cabinet. He was instrumental in shifting Labour’s position towards backing a second referendum

Pitch Launched his campaign by highlighting how he has stood up for leftwing causes as a campaigning lawyer, and unveiled the slogan “Another Future is Possible”, arguing “Labour can win again if we make the moral case for socialism

Starmer said Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary backed by the party’s Corbynite left, and Nandy, the Wigan MP championing the interests of non-metropolitan Labour, were both “excellent candidates, sincerely and genuinely putting forward very powerful cases that they think are right for our party, for our movement and for the country”.

Welcoming the “respectful” tone in which the contest had been conducted so far, Starmer also implied that collectively, the trio represented the future of the party. “Whichever one of us actually wins this, what you are seeing on display here is the leadership of the Labour party,” he said.

Long-Bailey and Nandy also promised to appoint their two respective opponents to the shadow cabinet if they won, and to accept a shadow cabinet appointment if they lost. Nandy said that she liked and respected Starmer and Long-Bailey, and that her regard for them had grown as the contest had gone on, and Long-Bailey said she thought Starmer and Nandy were both “brilliant”.

The remarks came at the end of a 90-minute hustings which, like almost all the others in this contest, was thoroughly cordial and remarkable for the extent to which the candidates largely agreed with each other. Given that Starmer received well over double the number of nominations from constituency Labour parties that Long-Bailey did, there is a widespread assumption that something stunning would have to happen for him to lose.

With ballot papers going out from Monday, even though the ballot does not close until Thursday 2 April – with the result to be announced on Saturday 4 April – many members are expected to vote within the next few days.

Most members will be invited to vote via email, but paper ballots will be sent out where email addresses are unavailable. Labour has more than 500,000 members, but voting also includes members of trade unions or socialist societies affiliated to Labour (the party hasn’t disclosed how many people are in this category), as well as 14,700 people who paid £25 to become registered supporters.

During the hustings, all three candidates stressed their determination to accept the Brexit outcome and to abandon talk of rejoining the EU.

Starmer said: “The first thing we have to accept is that the argument that has torn families, regions, parties apart over the past three and a half years – namely whether you are remain or leave – is over. All of us have to accept that. We have now left the EU.

“And I think our party needs to let that issue go. The Tories fought about Europe for 40 years. We don’t want to inherit their problem.”

Nandy said the UK’s future lay outside the EU. And Long-Bailey said Labour should not keeping hoping that Brexit would go wrong.

“What we don’t do is spend the next four years waiting to tell our communities that they got it wrong in the referendum result – ‘look how terrible it is’ – because we saw what happened in the general election,” Long-Bailey said.

Earlier, in an interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Nandy expressed reservations about her decision to sign a pledge card calling, among other things, for Labour to expel members with “bigoted, transphobic views”.

Nandy said she signed it because she agreed with the sentiment of protecting trans rights. But she also said that she wanted an open debate and that she did not think that “proscribing organisations is actually the right way to deal with disciplinary issues in the Labour party”.

She also said that pledge cards themselves had become “a real problem” in politics. She explained: “If we could have all signed a pledge card at the beginning to say that we wouldn’t sign pledge cards, we’d probably be in a much better place, because one of the ways that pledge cards have been used is to pit people against one another.”

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