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In the UK when MPs are debating in the Commons, they often (because of archaic rules) refer to each other as "the right honourable Member", "the Leader of the Opposition" or "the Secretary of State". Also, it is bad taste and often against the rules to insult someone in the commons (you cannot accuse someone directly of lying)

Is there a ranking for the various ways an MP could be referred to and should they always use the top ranked one? Would the use of a lower ranked one be seen as a breach of the rule or even a slur/insult?

Boris Johnston is the "Prime Minister", "The leader of the Conservatives" and "The Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip". All factually correct but could you use a lower ranked one as an almost insult?

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    Now that you mention it I would really like to see the latter title used in PMQs. :P Oct 11 at 7:52
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    "Right Honourable" is only used for member of the Privy Council. Other members are simply "honourable". Oct 11 at 8:27
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    @TheSimpliFire - I would also like to see it. I would like to see it used in a way to convey that the person speaking does not consider him a worthy/suitable to PM but has be begrudgingly concede that he was voted in as an MP. I particularly hate the title "Right honorable" being used on certain people who have recently been acting in an un-honorable way (subjective I know). Oct 11 at 9:52
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    Note that the phrase "Prime Minister" itself started out, in pre-Walpole times (and possibly even in the early parts of Walpole's tenure), as an insult, a way to accuse a particular minister of being the monarch's lapdog. Oct 12 at 11:23
  • Related but not an answer: years ago the male descendants of the former Kings of Italy, used to refer to the Italian President as "Senator". This was obviously quite insulting.
    – o0'.
    Oct 12 at 21:22
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Yes, but doing so usually leads to being corrected by members who may believe it to be an honest mistake, or being reprimanded by the chair if it is clearly done with the intention to insult. Using a Minister's constituency title instead of their position would be seen as intentionally done, but still a perfectly legitimate form of address and in no way insulting on its own.

In general, MPs are referred to as "the honourable member" or "my honourable friend" if the addressee is a member of the same party or coalition. The style of "right honourable" is only used if the MP is a member of the Privy Council - omitting this would usually be seen as more of a faux-pas on the part of the speaker rather than an insult directed at the member in question. Other honorifics of "gallant" - for military officers; "learned" - for barristers; and "reverend" - for members of the clergy; are no longer widely used, and although some traditionalists still use this style of address, omitting these would not be seen as an insult.

Erskine May explicitly states that the use of any legitimate designation, be that the title of the member's constituency or their post is acceptable:

In order to guard against all appearance of personality in debate, no Member other than the occupant of the Chair should refer to another by name. Each Member must be distinguished by the office they hold, by the place they represent or by other designations, as ‘the Leader of the Opposition’, ‘the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs’, ‘the (right) honourable gentleman the Member for York’, or ‘the honourable and learned Member who has just sat down’ or, when speaking of a member of the same party, ‘my (right) honourable friend the Member for …’.

Ignoring this advice, then, is likely to result in admonishment from the chair. The House of Commons Information Office notes that misuse of titles can often be construed as a political message:

From time to time, some have inferred political messages from the use, or non-use, of these terms. The use of these forms of address is long standing and was certainly the general rule at the time of the first reliable verbatim reports over 150 years ago. The purpose of using "Honourable" is to maintain the dignity of the House and its Members, to make criticism and comment less direct as well as showing respect to the Chair. A Member persistently offending against the tradition by using "you" or a Member's name is likely to be corrected by the Speaker and to be interrupted by shouts of "order" from other Members. Members do, however, sometimes inadvertently omit "Honourable": this often goes unchallenged but is always corrected by Hansard.

Probably the most common example of this is the use of "the right honourable Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip" to describe the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. This is rather more of a mouthful than "the Prime Minister", and therefore is clearly a deliberate choice of words. This phrasing is most often used by members of opposing parties - for example by David Linden and Alison Thewliss (SNP) and Toby Perkins (Labour) - but is also used by members of the government, for example, Michael Gove, so whether this phrasing is always intended as an insult is doubtful.

A more famous example of inappropriate address was by Boris Johnson himself during his tenure as Foreign Secretary in 2018, when he referred to Emily Thornberry as "the noble and learned Lady, the Baroness, whatever it is—I cannot remember what it is". This was regarded as sexist, and he was reprimanded by the Speaker:

First, we do not name-call in this Chamber. Secondly—I am dealing with the matter, and the right hon. Gentleman will listen and benefit from listening—we do not address people by the titles of their spouses. The shadow Foreign Secretary has a name, and it is not Lady something. We know what her name is. It is inappropriate and frankly sexist to speak in those terms, and I am not having it in this Chamber. That is the end of the matter. No matter how senior a Member, that parlance is not legitimate. It will not be allowed, and it will be called out.

This wasn't always the case though, as in 2017, Thornberry was also on the other side of the Speaker's admonishment, and Johnson's use of her title of 'Lady Nugee' was accepted without accusations of sexism.

Thornberry: I have not asked the question yet, Boris. Which is it: the Telegraph article or the Florence speech—the lion roars or the lion wants to stop this malarkey? Apart from his own fading ambitions, what exactly does the Foreign Secretary believe in?

Speaker: The right hon. Lady should not refer to the Foreign Secretary by his first name. It is rather vulgar.

Thornberry: I do apologise, Mr Speaker.

Speaker: Not the name, but merely the mention of it. It is unseemly and insufficiently reverential.

Johnson: I would not dream of calling the right hon. Lady by any name other than Lady Nugee.

Finally, I think the most common form of inappropriate address usually comes in the form of erroneously addressing honourable members as right honourable members, rather than the other way around. For example, the following exchange:

Fabian Hamilton (Labour): The right hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt (Conservative))—sorry, the hon. and gallant Member; he is not right honourable—

Sir Henry Bellingham (Chair): Not yet.

Hamilton: Not yet; I am sure he will be very soon.

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  • Your answer begins "yes", but virtually everything that follows suggests "no"? You identify that the only admonishments that actually get made are when one uses an individual's name rather than their position, and the quotes from Erskine May and the Information Office suggest the intention there is more to depersonalise debate than to avoid insult. As for the choice to refer to a member by their constituency rather than their ministerial post, could that not be explained by the subject matter under debate being more pertinent to that particular role?
    – eggyal
    Oct 11 at 16:13
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    @eggyal yes, there is a hierarchy, yes, there are rules, yes, you can flout those rules for effect. Since that's the substance of the question, it seems to warrant the leading "yes". The rest shows that it doesn't seem to be done with intent terribly often, and it isn't left to stand uncorrected.
    – hobbs
    Oct 12 at 19:01

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